Miss Brown

Patrice Palmer profile pictureMiss Brown

by Patrice Palmer

 

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

Henry Adams

 

One of the icebreakers that I use with my TESL trainees is to ask them to think about their favourite teacher and explain why they choose this person. I like to do this because I want teachers-in-training to reflect on who they might want to model and also think about the everlasting qualities of this memorable educator. I believe that every one of us has had a teacher who has made an impact or a difference in our lives. Years later, their influence lives on. Who is that teacher for you? My most memorable teacher was Miss Brown.

In 1966-67, I was a Grade 4 student at Bedson Elementary School in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Miss Brown was kind and good-natured, and she saw the potential in each and every student. She never yelled at us (despite teaching 34 rambunctious 8-year olds all day in high heels) but rather treated us as people. I remember how every Friday afternoon Miss Brown would read aloud from a Hardy Boys book, leaving us hanging for more until the following week. We also spent a lot of time completing “levelled reading packs” which consisted of a story of a famous person. One particular story that I still remember was about George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery. Imagine reading that in 1966! After reading on our own, we would answer questions which she would check. If we answered most of the questions correctly, we were able to select a reading from the next level. This pushed me to develop my reading skills without realizing I was doing that. Miss Brown instilled a love of reading which I still hold deeply today.

Miss Brown was quite extraordinary for her time, because every summer she and her mom (who she lived with) travelled to an exotic country. This was quite unusual at the time, given that air travel in 1966 would have been costly and very time-consuming. On special occasions, Miss Brown would show us photographs and artefacts from around the world. I remember seeing photos of the Sphinx in Egypt, thinking that one day I would be standing in the same spot where she stood taking that same photo. Years later, when I walked on the Egyptian tarmac, I touched the ground and said a thank you to Miss Brown. I don’t think I ever would have travelled to Egypt if it weren’t for Miss Brown’s own adventure there in the 1960’s. As teachers, we should never forget the power of images in our own classrooms.

One of the most profound photographs that I saw in my Grade 4 class was that of a shiny gold Buddha. Miss Brown had travelled to Japan, and I remember thinking that the Buddha was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I had so many questions about the statue. What did it mean? Why had I never seen anything like it before? Years later, I would read everything I could about Buddhism and see some of the most fascinating statues in Thailand and Myanmar. Miss Brown contributed to my curiosity about countries and cultures by “bringing the world” into our classroom.

So, if Miss Brown were a teacher in 2018, what would she do differently? I think she would still treat her students like people and see the potential in everyone. She would encourage us to grow as young people and instill an excitement in learning, whether through reading or research. I believe she would have even more stamps in her passport and share what she had learned about the world with us. Her own passion for learning would be evident and contagious.

When I think about how Miss Brown influenced me as an educator, I would say that it is by seeing the potential in every student and encouraging them to dream big. Her legacy has helped me think about how teachers can inspire students by exploring the world (either in person or through movies or other media), thinking about the beauty of diversity on the planet, and through love of learning anything, not just English!

Who was your “Miss Brown”? How did this teacher impact who you are as a teacher? As the Adams quote in the beginning of this post suggests, we never can tell where our influence stops.

 

 

Motivating Students Using Character Strengths

Patrice Palmer profile pictureMotivating Students Using Character Strengths

by Patrice Palmer.

 

A few years ago, while conducting research for a course I was developing as a freelancer, I discovered the science of positive psychology (if you don’t know anything about it, watch this great 5-minute whiteboard video). Traditional psychology typically looks at what is wrong with us, while positive psychology looks at what is right with us. Our strengths are as important as weaknesses. I was fascinated by this evidence-based science and pondered how I could apply it to second language acquisition.

I feel that one of the most interesting areas in positive psychology is exploring character strengths (some examples include honesty, zest, love of learning, perseverance, gratitude, and curiosity). Approximately 55 scientists reviewed the best thinking on virtues and positive human qualities in the areas of theology, psychology, and philosophy from the past 2,500 years over a three-year period. The result was a compilation of 24 character strengths which are universal across religions, cultures, nations, and belief systems. I liked the idea of focusing on students’ strengths instead of their weaknesses, because after seven years as an EAP instructor I felt that with red pen in hand, my job was to point out errors or deficits in writing. And students are much more than their writing skills! I decided to use the character strengths survey with my students in hopes to motivate them more but had no idea how big the impact of taking a 10-minute survey would be.

Below I’d like to list the steps my class and I took in using character strengths in an EAP class.

  1. Pre-writing activity. First we watched the video The Science of Strengths in class. Students discussed the content in small groups exploring such questions as, “How are character strengths like super-powers? What do you think your top strengths might be?”
  2. The survey.  The character strengths survey takes about 10 minutes and is available at http://www.viacharacter.org/www/Character-Strengths-Survey. I set up a free teacher account on the website with a designated link for the survey for each class. In this way I could get the survey results emailed to me and I could also verify that the students did actually complete the survey.
  3. Face-to-face interviews. I set up a schedule with 10-minute time slots to talk to students about their top five character strengths and how they use them specifically as a student. I created a form for this task which they were required to complete and bring to the interview. Reflecting on the survey results before the interview and being asked questions during the interview was part of a pre-writing exercise for their writing assignment.
  4. Writing assignment. Students were required to write a 5-paragraph essay about their top three character strengths. Although the top five are considered Signature Strengths (and the ones that are most easily and often used), choosing just three made it easier for the essay format.

Small Changes, Big Results

Meeting forty students in one class requires time that we often do not have but I wanted to be able to personally connect with each student. During the interviews, I noticed two things. First, when I asked each student to tell me about their top five character strengths and how they demonstrate them as a student, they immediately came to life! Normally in my EAP classes students are very quiet, but the same learners beamed and spoke with a sense of excitement as they talked about their strengths.

The second change was in me. When I looked out at the sea of student faces after the interviews, I saw their strengths instead of thinking about their writing skills. For example, I had one student who constantly asked questions. When I learned that two of his top five strengths were curiosity and leadership, it made complete sense. In other words, instead of seeing him as annoying I now perceived him as inquisitive and asking questions that others might be afraid to ask. Another student, who had hounded me via email for two weeks about making up a missed assignment, had fairness as his top strength. He felt that my denial of his request was unfair and that made sense to me, so we talked one day after class and I changed my mind about the make-up test.

Normally I can’t say that I enjoy reading and grading forty essays, but I was actually excited about reading that particular pile of papers. Students had learned what they were good at and what was positive about themselves. Hopefully this knowledge and awareness will have a lasting effect on their success as learners and out in the labour force.

I’d like to share with you a few comments from the essays written by my students.

”In conclusion, identifying and building on your own unique character strengths can help make a better and happier person. I agree with the top three results of my VIA Character Strengths Survey (love, fairness, and kindness). Although I suppose I was aware of these traits, the survey made me stop and think about my character.  In the future I will use these character strengths to bring out the best in me and help me to achieve the goals I set for my life. After all, it’s what inside a person that counts.”

“The three character strengths of curiosity, love of learning, and leadership have aided me by providing me access to work opportunities, helping my performance in school, seek out learning opportunities, and increase the quality of my interpersonal relationships at school.”

“My top three character strengths are Love, Prudence and Teamwork. I was not surprised to discover what they turned out to be. I would not even have changed the order in which they were given. It was reassuring to know what I thought I already knew.”

Why Use Character Strengths?

There are many reasons why it could be a good idea, but I think most importantly students should learn about their strengths and reflect on how they can use them (or how they have been using them in the past) to achieve results inside and outside of school. We know that our language learners can feel frustrated in their ability to learn English, so focusing on strengths could give them confidence. It is important to remember that all character strengths have downsides if overused, so that should be discussed as well. For example, my own top character strength is Appreciation for Beauty and Excellence but its overuse results in perfectionism! Another example would be the overuse of curiosity – too much of it may mean that the person never gets anything done because they are so distracted by learning about everything around them.

Overall, using our character strengths makes us feel happier, more confident, increases our energy, lessens our stress, helps us to achieve goals and grow as individuals. What teacher doesn’t want that for his/her students!

 

Conference Presenter: Yes, Maybe, or Never?

Patrice Palmer profile picture

Conference Presenter: Yes, Maybe, or Never?
by Patrice Palmer.

 

When I sat on my local TESL Board of Directors, we spent months planning our annual spring conference. Most years, the call for proposals yielded a very low rate of return. In fact, most years board members had to personally reach out to teachers to encourage or even persuade them to present. In this post I would like to explore the reasons why that happens.  

My good teacher friend Joan Bartel and I share the view that presenting at conferences is not only fun but also quite addictive. So far, I have presented at least 30 times in the last 20 years both locally and internationally. We often see each other at conferences including last year’s TESOL Convention in Seattle. Over the dinner one evening, we shared how our presentations went and talked about the thrill of presenting at an international conference. However, obviously many teachers do not share our excitement.  

Was I always such a conference-keener? Of course not! I can clearly remember my first conference presentation. I was working in a Teaching and Learning Centre in Hong Kong and I was told (not asked) that I would be presenting at a conference for local language teachers. My topic was how to teach English using a new virtual 360° panoramic website, which was brand-new technology back in 2005. Not only was I nervous about actually speaking to a large group, but also worried about demonstrating the technology itself operating live. While I waited patiently to be called to the podium, my mouth got dry and I was sweating! I remember the papers shaking in my hands… And before I knew it, my 30-minute presentation was over and I was sitting in audience with the conference participants. Even though I was terrified and anxious, I am very glad that I was forced to present. Without this prompting, I am not sure that I would have had the confidence to submit a conference proposal on my own. The best thing about that first presentation is that every time after that, it just got a bit easier because I knew I could do it.   

Do I still get presenter jitters? YES! As an example, moments before my TESOL Convention presentation in 2016, I was still reviewing my Power Point slides right up to my curtain call, but it was all worth the butterflies in the end. I knew that I had a good grasp of the content, but I just wanted it to go well.   

I certainly understand one’s apprehension in presenting, but the low rate of presenter proposal submissions for last year’s local TESL conference still perplexed me. I wanted to find out the reasons behind it so I designed a simple 2-question survey and sent it to my blog followers.  

My first question was, “If you haven’t presented at a conference, is this something that you would like to do in the future?”  Surprisingly, more than 46% of teachers responded with a YES. Approximately the same number replied “Maybe”, and only 8% said “Never”, which is much lower than I expected. 

My second question was, “If you are not interested in presenting at conferences, what is the number one reason?” Only 10% of the teachers said that they are too busy, which is understandable given our profession. Unfortunately, 20% of the respondents stated that they are too afraid to present in front of colleagues. Again, this is understandable since glossophobia (or the fear of public speaking) is the number one fear for many people. About 35% of teachers said that they are not interested because they would not receive any money (it is expensive to attend conferences). What was most surprising to me is that the same number of teachers said that they do not feel like they have the skills or expertise to present at a conference. Personally, I believe that all teachers have the skills (many of us teach presentation skills to our students) and we certainly have expertise from our own classroom experiences that could be shared to help other teachers.   

For this year’s TESL Ontario Conference in Canada, I invited a former colleague to co-present. Drew had always wanted to present but said that he didn’t have the confidence to do it alone. The day after our presentation, I received an email from him: “That was fun. Thanks for asking me. It was a great experience”.  

If you are an experienced conference presenter, think about inviting a newbie to co-present with you. I would also recommend that you start with a small, local conference first. Panel presentations are also a good way to get started and for you to gain experience and confidence.   

What else do you think we could do together as a teacher community to help other teachers feel more confident and believe that they have something worthwhile to share at TESOL conferences? If you are an ESL/EFL teacher who has never presented at a conference, please write in the comments below why you made this choice. If you know of any resources to help teachers feel more confident about presenting, please share. If you are a blogger, think about writing a post to encourage teachers to put themselves out there on the conference stage. Then, together we can see how teachers could be supported in this exciting professional development opportunity. 

Stepping out of your comfort zone

Patrice Palmer profile picture
Patrice Palmer
By Patrice Palmer

The start of a new year is a time when many people reflect on their past achievements and set goals or make resolutions for the upcoming year. I am one of those individuals. Every year I actually sit down and take the time to write down my goals for the year ahead and then review the list before the year ends to see if I accomplished every item on my list.

Most of my goals for 2016 were a combination of personal and professional and a lot of them were related to travelling. It was quite easy to check those travelling goals off my list. For example, I had the opportunity to attend the IATEFL conference in Birmingham, present at a conference in Costa Rica, and take part in an intensive coaching training program in Atlanta, Georgia. One of the travel highlights for me was  a two-week assignment with CESO (a Canadian NGO) in Guyana, South America, where I trained CARICOM staff in report writing and presentation skills. My main professional goal for 2016, however, was to leave my teaching career after 20 years and launch myself as a teacherpreneur, which was definitely outside of my comfort zone. I’m proud to say I managed to achieve that goal. And even though in my new role as a teacherpreneur I had to do many things that terrified me (like blogging, writing e-books, and marketing myself), it felt good and has been exciting. That is why this year I decided to set goals that will force me to go even farther away from my comfort zone.

One of the questions that I ask teacherpreneurs when I interview them for my blog is, “What have you had to do outside of your comfort zone as a teacherpreneur?”  Each one of them has given me at least one or two examples of things that they have had to do that terrified them but they still persevered.  Based on the likelihood that teachers in the live online course Teacher to Teacherpreneur in partnership with iTDi.pro would have to do things outside of their comfort zone to move forward in their teacherpreneur journey, I decided to make this part of their weekly assignment. In our online community on Facebook, teachers post one thing that they have had to do outside of their comfort zone and elaborate on what it felt like. The feeling of this kind of accomplishment is so rewarding that I believe it gives one the confidence to try yet another challenge.

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the term comfort zone was first used in 1923 and is defined as (1) the temperature range within which one is comfortable; (2) the level at which one functions with ease and familiarity. Interestingly, the term has also been growing in popularity in the last twenty years or so.

Well, I can say for myself that it certainly feels cozy and comfortable to stay in my comfort zone, so why would I purposely be planning to do things outside of it? Sylvia Duckworth, a very creative educator based in Canada, brilliantly demonstrates why in her Sketchnote that you can see below. It might seem surprising at first to see what may (and will!) happen as you start your journey out of that cozy comfort: increased confidence, a sense of achievement, willingness to try more new things… This Sketchnote is meant to motivate students, however the content can be used to inspire anyone who wants to grow, challenge themselves, and boost their self-confidence.

Image credit https://sylviaduckworth.com/tag/comfort-zone/

A year ago, when I left classroom teaching in order to make a transition to becoming a full-time teacherpreneur and working for myself, it was not unusual for me to wake up in the middle of the night riddled with doubt and fear. Until a strange thing happened. The more I did something that was scary, like start blogging, the more exciting it became to find a new challenge, like start a podcast and give webinars.

As teachers, we cannot expect our students to try new things, challenge themselves, and become more confident if we don’t know how it feels to truly feel uncomfortable ourselves. Furthermore, we can’t fully appreciate the sense of accomplishment or learning about ourselves if we don’t see the results of discomfort.

So, what is on my list for 2017?

  • A TESOL Conference Presentation in March with a publisher Dorothy Zemach;
  • Another two-week training assignment with CESO in Ethiopia;
  • Publishing a small book;
  • Writing an online course for teacherpreneurs;
  • Being interviewed (instead of interviewing others).

What are you doing in 2017 that is outside of your comfort zone?

 

If you are curious to assess your comfort zone, try this free, fun survey http://www.whatismycomfortzone.com/survey/.

Being Open to Teaching Online

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Patrice Palmer profile picture
Patrice Palmer

By Patrice Palmer

To say that the education field often undergoes change is an understatement. Many of the recent changes relate to technology in teaching and learning. Initially, I felt that ESL could only be taught face to face, however now I have a different view based on my own personal experience. I think teachers can be open-minded to any change when we see the benefits for our students. This was key for me.

A few years ago, the college that I was working at announced in May that it would transition to becoming a “blended learning” institute the following September. This meant that students would have both face-to-face classes and online activities. At the time, I was very skeptical about teaching English for Academic Purposes in this format, and also overwhelmed with the thought of adapting both my teaching approach and materials to a blended format.  I also wondered how students could possibly learn and improve their language skills without all of us physically being in the same room.

The fall semester was rocky in that many of my international students were unfamiliar with logging in to the college platform to find course outlines, email their instructors, and locate information related to assignments and assessments. So much class time was spent helping students to navigate a absolutely new learning environment. Instead of us teachers providing handouts for students, they were asked to read and sometimes print off learning plans, readings, and other handouts before classes. As a result, many came to class without the required materials so it was often impossible to teach what was planned on that day. The photocopying allotment for each teacher per semester was cut to less than 500 sheets. In classes with 40-50 students, teachers would quickly exceed their limit. It was a stressful time for both instructors and students.

You would think that this experience would make me shy away from teaching online courses, but it did not. Slowly, I began to see the benefits for both instructors and students. For example, the online assignments helped to reinforce material. Content was covered in class for each 2-hour lesson, and then materials were uploaded for reference. For example, if I were teaching essay writing, I would provide a sample after class. Writing that was completed outside of class could be checked for common errors using Spellcheck and Grammarcheck. For quiet students, the chance to interact online was a perfect alternative. Lively discussion ensued online which I believe would not have happened in a classroom setting. Discussion boards provided students with an opportunity to ask questions, help each other out, practice their writing and communication skills, and gain more comfort navigating the course platform.

Once I felt comfortable with teaching online, I started to look for other opportunities. As a result, I now teach two TESL courses for a college located in another city. If the courses were only offered face to face, I would be unable to travel to that city and students from all over the province would be unable to obtain a TESL credential. Since we can’t meet face to face for practice teaching, students record their teaching at home and upload their videos to the course platform. Having a video of one’s teaching also helps new teachers reflect on their skills. It is also beneficial for me because there is always an odd student who challenges me on their grade, and then I have a chance to go back and review a particular part of the lesson if necessary.

Learning to be an ESL teacher online presents some challenges but there are more and more technology tools available to create an interactive environment. For instance, I frequently record videos using Vimeo and post them to provide clarity or general feedback on assignments, and like to use voice recording software available inside the course platforms to leave comments on assessments.

In addition to teaching the TESL course, I have also had experience teaching a well-designed university-level academic writing course online. Each week students were introduced to a writing technique and submitted an assignment to practice and demonstrate their learning. Overall, students did very well in the course, and I could see the importance of developing essay writing skills over a 12-week period. For example, students submitted a draft and then a final piece of writing after receiving feedback which facilitated their learning.  I also appreciated having all of the course materials including rubrics prepared by the Department and uploaded before I started teaching. This gave me more time to grade assignments and provide robust feedback which is so important to improve one’s writing.

Despite the benefits outlined, I do believe that teaching online requires much more time for both students and teachers. It should not be seen as an “easy way” to either take a class or teach one. Online courses are not for everyone but before you say “no”, keep an open mind. I am glad that I did because it has opened many new teaching opportunities, including an online course that I will be teaching for iTDi.pro in January 2017!